- The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History
In the interview which concludes The Birth-Mark, Susan Howe says that during childhood her Boston household was visited by such pioneers of American studies as Perry Miller and F. O. Matthiessen. Career-wise, however, Howe’s path to academia has be en indirect: born in 1937, she gained her first professorship in 1989 in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo. A visual artist by [End Page 192] training, Howe veered into a genre of writing in the 1970s that seeks to “install certain narrativ es somewhere between history, mystic speech, and poetry” (p. 44). Her poetry includes Secret History of the Dividing Line (1978), Pythagorean Silence (1982), and Defenestration of Prague (1983). In 1985 she published an original criti cal study, My Emily Dickinson, which criticized editors for having homogenized the format and typography of Dickinson’s manuscripts, taming the unruly rigor of poems which were originally “multifaceted visual and verbal productions.” Howe also argu ed that the Amherst poet should not be viewed as a victim of repression, as many feminists see her, but as a refuser of congregations, a powerful will-to-reclusion in art—“One unchosen American women alone at home and choosing.” Emily’s home was a nomadi c space between orthodoxies.
An understanding of Howe’s kinship with Dickinson’s poetic daring is helpful for reading The Birth-Mark, whose prose is poetic, and whose protagonist, Mary Rowlandson, shared Dickinson’s “stubborn strength in isolation.” The captivity narratives ar e portals into the antinomian controversy of New England, which was “the primordial struggle of North American literary expression” (p. 4). It is not Gilbert and Gubar to whom Howe has recourse in her analyses of hostage consciousness. She cites the philo sophy of Emmanuel Lévinas. As with feminism, which she extends rather than follows, Howe takes up the philosophy of alterity without its orthodoxy. (In the face of frontier brutality she cannot discern the “Father of orphans and defender of widows” of Psalm 68.) Encounters in the wilderness of tribes, woods, and waters aroused an immodest otherness within the American literary unconscious, unsettling the styles of expression and selfhood which the puritan colonies were trying to instantiate. The literary awakening of Dickinson, Rowlandson, Melville, Hawthorne, and other writers was not due to the Great Awakening urged by churches, but to the traumatic transfer of sovereignty from God to frontier, a permanent revolution to which these writers’ imaginations would remain exposed.
Howe’s new foray into criticism tracks the textual marginalia which yield the visionary utterances of Rowlandson and Hutchinson. A self-confessed “library cormorant,” Howe gathers a quiet spectacle of testimonies, those of separated loved ones dragged int o “Removes” by tribes of Native Americans. These resonant texts from New England village libraries and major collections at Harvard, are melded together by Howe’s intuitive, almost telepathic sensibility into a kind of spiritual drama informed by critical acumen. Howe takes her bearings from Patricia Caldwell’s essay “The Antinomian Language Controversy,” which appeared in the Harvard Theological Review in 1976. The dislocating frontier experience for Hutchinson, Rowlandson, and others forced the c reation of a different language. It is with this antinomian language that Howe develops a sensitive rapport, echoing its myriad haunting voices in her commentaries. What Gadamer calls effective history broods and rustles inside her [End Page 193] writing with lyrical unease. Indeed, Howe’s work is a creative example of the fusion of horizons which Gadamer says epitomizes the hermeneutic event. Howe’s personal method as revealed in her interview: “Not to explain the work, not to trans late it, but to meet the work with writing . . . Not just to write a tribute, but to meet her [Dickinson] in the tribute. And that’s a kind of fusion” (p. 158). Some scholars will find her method obscure. But it’s hard to find anything negative at this height. Howe would have us meet others at their most exposed, delicate point, where their vulnerability...